The writer and Midwestern advertising executive, Thomas D. Murray, passed away a few years back. So, it was through the magic of the Internet that I have just found a copy of a small book published by him, a marvelous collection of the thoughtful essays which he wrote for car magazines over a long and mostly anonymous career. The reason his writings resonate with me today, even though they are about an era that my father remembers more clearly than I, is because he understood that cars, then and now, offered far more to the human spirit than simply transportation. To Murray, cars symbolized something powerful and lovely and which was deeply ingrained in our American way of life and thought: Cars are at once about beauty and freedom and, perhaps most of all, romance, and those who understand this seem to have a happy glint in their eye when they see a car of memory, and discover again that warm feeling that may have been missing for a while.
Some of us collect old cars because they represent a time that is long gone, much in the way of those who cherish lovely Renaissance painters, composers of orchestral music, or fabricators of ornate Russian eggs. Collectors, however, prize the old and the rare not just for their monetary values, which are often quite great, but also for something far more intangible and yet vastly appealing. Each of these things offer experiences which inspire us with their beauty, and memory, and a level of world and personal history that is rapidly receding even as we try to collect and preserve what we can. Who would have imaged that an ordinary, pedestrian car from the war years of World War II would one day create lust, and a hint of tears, in a 70-year-old man.
Murray writes of the young boys who used to hang out on their bikes down by the drugstore watching and dreaming as the varied multitude of cars slowly passed by as if on display. Certainly there were heart thumping moments as majestic works of art rolled past occupied by beautiful and happy people, but just as certainly there were old, two-door sedans driven by regular folks, cars which any one of those boys would have swooped up in a moment if only they could. The motion, the freedom, and the contrast between effort on bike pedals and gas pedals all conspired to create a simmering kind of desire that, for some of us, has never gone away.
As a child I collected toy cars, first there were the tiny Matchboxes; only later came the fancy British Corgi Toys with working doors and hoods and tiny steering wheels that actually turned. Favorite cars in hand, my friends and I would create whole villages and countrysides in the soft summer dirt of our driveways and gardens. We made up noises to go with the type of car or truck, and through the long, idyllic afternoons we lived imaginary, miniature lives, while putting the cars through their paces. We would invent trips to the lake or to the store; after all, any trip completed in a car was a good one. And now and again a shiny police car with red lights and a siren stood across the road as the sturdy tow truck winched a sports car out of the weeds, even as a long and elegant Cadillac ambulance stood by just in case an injury needed to be collected and carted away. Afterward, the tractor and bulldozer would come along to smooth the dirt and all would be well again, at least until the next time. Those early days playing with cars and imagining wheels of our own surely set the stage for what has become, for me, a lifetime love affair with the motorized freedom of going places on my own four wheels.
At 16, my first car was a plain Ford station wagon, the ubiquitous family car of the generations that spanned the 50s through the late 80s. Paid for with several summers of dishwashing money, my parents deemed it safe, and even in those years of 39-cent gas I still attained a steady 20 mpg from that small V-8. The best part of having a big car was that you always got to drive, the occasional dollar bill scrounged from a passenger more than covering the cost. We drove constantly, both in groups, and on long summer evenings, in pairs. Our forgotten bikes rusted in garages while we drove for ice creams, to drive-ins, and even sometimes into the city to see a concert or show. We drove one block, or 20, and even when the car was still, the radio was on and the musical score of our summers played in the background and long into the night. I was one of the oldest, and that first summer there were just two of us with cars and we felt special and important to make the rounds to collect friends and head to the beach on a hot summer night. That same car went away with me to school, and then to college, times when carloads of ski racers or soccer players chose my light green ranch wagon time and again over the smelly cattle car of the bus.
Many of us experienced magical moments of growing up in cars, and for the most part this is still true today. Taking a date to the prom in a big open convertible is far better than a limo, or worse, one of those amorphous electric cars. Two young people falling in love have always found the freedom of a car something akin to dreamy, a rite of passage that, for some, never leaves. From first dates, to confetti-showered wedding departures complete with tin cans and shaving cream tributes, to driveways of new first homes, we are a nation that embraces the key role of our cars in our lives. They get us to the hospital on the night our children are born, and then carry our new family home to the new life that is just on the verge of beginning. It all harkens back, I suppose, to a simpler time when the world all seemed so new. Such is part of the allure of an old car today, I suppose. We remember the music, and the friendships, and the first loves, and also those lonely drives to somewhere, all alone. Cars remind us that we are still capable of feelings, and it is at those times when we allow ourselves to feel that we find we are still alive. So when that shiny convertible, or station wagon, or old pick-up truck rumbles by, remember that all over our country young boys still sit like parade reviewers on walls and curbs; watching, waiting, wishing, and dreaming of the freedom that lies waiting just down the road.
Tim Scott lives in Jackson.